It's happened often enough now, these racial calamities and tragedies, that there's almost a kind of script. First, someone is killed by police or dies in police custody, typically unarmed, black and young. That person's name enters the national consciousness, along with that of their town or the law enforcement agency involved, and sometimes the officers involved in the incident. Then come the questions -- who will investigate, what should they investigate, whether the local police force and prosecutors can really lead an impartial inquiry into one of their own. But in so many cases, the inchoate tangle of practical questions and existential ones about the deaths of unarmed people at the hands of police seems to arrive at the same solution.
Time and time again -- after unarmed black individuals died in police custody, or were shot and killed by police -- in New York, in Missouri, in South Carolina, and from police themselves in Baltimore, the answer has been the same: A special prosecutor, someone with no day-to-day connections to local police, state's attorneys or even the community itself, should be appointed to investigate fatal police shootings involving unarmed suspects and situations where people die an unnatural death in jail or prison.
That's been the standard response. Now, some say it's time to go off-script.
Earlier this month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced that New York's attorney general will begin serving as a special prosecutor leading investigations, and sometimes grand jury inquires, into fatal police shootings.
In December, a piece by Joshua Deahl, an appellate attorney in the Washington,D.C. Public Defender Service published at Bloomberg View, the opinion arm of Bloomberg News, called on states to stand up permanent special prosecutor's offices housed inside the offices of state attorneys general. These teams, Deahl argued could investigate police-involved cases without the appearance of impropriety and possible conflicts of interest that dog cases where local police and prosecutors investigate one or more of their own. Deahl also claimed that such a set up would reduce the cost of quick putting together and pulling apart temporary special prosecutors offices and the risk that someone with too many connections to locals and possible conflicts will get the job.
And in October, a bipartisan pair of Missouri legislators said they planned to introduce a bill calling for all investigations of fatal police shootings and other deaths in police custody to be turned over to a special prosecutor.
Others would go still further.
The Rev. Al Sharpton told The Washington Post Tuesday that he would like to see a Justice Department division of special prosecutors charged specifically with leading investigations into fatal police shootings and in-custody deaths.
Ideally, Sharpton said, that's something that would happen now, in the final days of the Obama administration -- and something one or more of the 2016 candidates will add to their platform.
Of course, federal prosecutors generally limit their inquires to alleged civil right violations. But they do have the ability to bring even more serious charges such as murder under certain circumstances. As a voice at the helm of a civil rights organization and host of his own television and radio shows, Sharpton certainly knows how to make his opinions hard to ignore.
As the new scrutiny on law enforcement as issues of race and policing have come into sharper national focus, few concrete policy solutions have resulted (beyond police-worn body cameras.) Until now.